You are so totally what you eat

A recent RADIOLAB podcast called GUTS really got me thinking about food (as if I didn’t think about food enough already throughout the day…) but it helped me get beyond meal planning and really dig into what happens when you eat. I’m not a biology whiz, but I understand on very basic levels how the human body processes food. I know the types of foods I should embrace to reach my fitness goals, and the types of foods I should avoid. But, that’s about it. This podcast helped me take things to a higher level.

First, the RADIOLAB folks explored what goes on when your stomach digests food. Digestion is pretty basic, right? Your stomach uses what it needs from the food you eat and sends it around to different parts of the body – maybe muscles need to recover, bones need to mend, etc. But, the podcast got me thinking that in a very strange way that any given meal essentially morphs into the being who ate it. It becomes an inseparable part of the body – fueling cells and bodily functions – rather than just being the input and output of a system. This gives a new perspective on the old adage that you are what you eat.

Perhaps the most interesting terrifying part of the podcast was when a researcher, John Cryan, spoke about the thousands of species of bacteria that are alive and well in your body. You’re never alone. There is a whole world of little creatures hanging out in your gut at any given moment, and you better hope they are in balance otherwise you might experience the stomach virus from hell. But, I digress…

Cryan also spoke about some interesting experiments on mice that look at how the presence of different types of lactobacillus bacteria (same stuff in yogurt, cheese, and more) in their guts impacted their personalities and how they react to stress. Turns out, the mice have a direct link – the largest nerve in their body – between the stomach and brain. When the nerve is intact, and the lactobacillus is present, it seems that a message goes from the gut to the brain for the mice to remain calm. Sever that nerve, and the mice react with panic. Then, Jonah Lehrer, a frequent RADIOLAB contributor, came on to say that a similar experiment was done with humans: participants who ingested high levels of probiotics exhibited biological reactions similar to taking anti-anxiety meds. 

From my (non-scientific) everyday observations, it’s pretty clear to me that when I eat well, I feel good. When I don’t, not only does my body feel terrible, but I also feel an emotional impact as well. I’m sure part of it is psychological – that immediate guilt of eating something unhealthy, how it wouldn’t be so hard to have eaten a piece of fruit instead of a cookie – but it makes sense that biological reactions to the ingredients in food could compound these emotions. That’s even more reason for me to steer clear of the bad stuff – and I certainly don’t want to upset the crazy microorganisms that keep my body in balance.

There is no way that this summary has done the podcast justice so click here to listen to the GUTS episode and let me know what you think!

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